The Problem with GCSE PE

The Problem With GCSE PE

In a recent article from the Association for Physical Education (AfPE), it was reported that for the first time ever more students were selecting Computing over GCSE Physical Education (PE). The overall number of students selecting GCSE PE has also declined year on year since 2016.

On the surface, this could be worrying for us PE teachers. This decline could indicate that a qualification in PE holds little value or perhaps fewer students are enjoying core PE and therefore not choosing to study the subject further. The purpose of this opinion piece is not to be controversial, but to challenge the thinking of those in the profession to consider the priority we give this qualification and to who it should be aimed.

Should we be worried by this decline or might it actually be considered a positive sign for PE?

GCSE PE vs Core PE

One of the biggest mistakes I have made as a Head of PE (and I have made many) was to design my core PE curriculum around GCSE PE. When I joined my school, GCSE PE grades were weak, uptake was poor, and the subject held little value to most. I considered it my biggest priority to change these outcomes, thinking that a PE department is judged mainly by examination results. My vision for PE focused on the following:

  • GCSE PE specification sports
  • Practical assessment matched with examination board criteria
  • Key Stage 3 taught GCSE specific content
  • Lessons obsessed with performance
  • Staff training centred around exam technique and assessment objectives

All roads led to GCSE PE.

In time, outcomes did improve. Uptake went up and results were much stronger. I felt my leadership was working. Until we conducted a Core PE student voice. A majority of students found little value in Core PE and in reality, some really didn’t enjoy our lessons at all.

The problem with GCSE PE is that it is prioritised over Core PE and this has therefore negatively affected the quality and true purpose of Core PE. What I realised, after much reflection, soul searching, frustration, ranting, etc. was that I was forgetting that Core PE and GCSE PE should have two very different aims.

Purpose of GCSE PE vs Purpose of Core PE

The purpose for a qualification is clear: to demonstrate a level of knowledge or ability in a particular area to move onto further study or employment (Meyer, 2011). Conversely, the purpose of Core PE, whilst often debated, is to prepare young people for lifelong involvement with physical activity.

There is a clear difference in aims of the two. GCSE PE has no intention of nurturing lifelong engagement in physical activity and Core PE is not out to further careers. Yet, for far too long we have been under pressure to use Core PE to meet the aims and better the outcomes of GCSE PE.

To further explore this point, let us consider the two main components of GCSE PE: practical performance and theory.

Core or GCSE PE

Practical GCSE PE

The entirety of practical assessment in GCSE PE is dedicated to performance across a limited number of sports. In most specifications, students must participate in three different activities.

To gain high marks in this element of the course, students must be playing sport outside of school. That’s not to say that schools cannot develop competency across a range of activities, but it is no secret that students that play at a higher level outside of school will achieve higher scores. How many of your non-GCSE students can cope with that level of performance?

If a qualification is to prepare students for the next stage of learning or career, this begs the question: what is the practical assessment in GCSE PE truly preparing students for? This practical element of PE only serves to create elite athletes and only a tiny minority of students around the country will ever go on to be an elite sportsperson. In the old specification, (pre-2016) students were able to coach and officiate as well as participate across a larger range of sports. Far more representative of the types of roles that students may wish to pursue, if not professionally, then recreationally.

There can be no doubt that the performance focussed element of practical GCSE PE will do little to engage the disengaged, motivate the unmotivated or build positive connections with physical activity for those that do not already have a positive relationship. Nor does it represent the type of physical activity that some students will go on to engage in. It fails to ignite the emotions required for some to fall in love with an activity and remain in love with it beyond school years. It promotes the skill-drill delivery that David Kirk has been arguing against for years. It could do more harm than good.

The problem with GCSE PE is that teachers are under pressure to deliver performance-focused practical lessons to all in the hope that it will ensure the minority are more prepared for success. Thus failing to meet the purpose of Core PE.

Theory PE

Let me put this bluntly, GCSE PE does little to educate anyone on genuine physical education. How we learn to move, the importance of fundamental movement skills, etc.

When we consider the content of the course, it is difficult to call it PE when so much of it is focused on sport, and elite sport at that.

There are aspects of the theory content that is important for all students: aerobic and anaerobic respiration, importance of a warm-up and cool down, aspects of anatomy and physiology. Having this knowledge might not improve engagement or motivation, however it could support students to make informed decisions or engage in physical activity safely.

I have seen departments using GCSE PE content theory tests to support Core PE assessment or use of theory booklets during practical lessons. Although well intentioned, do these really meet our aims for Core PE?

The problem with GCSE PE is that it is not physical education.

Shouldn’t Qualifications be Inclusive?

This leads me to my final point of inclusivity. Of course, we would open our classroom or sports hall doors to any student that wanted to pursue this option. However, I have seen calls online for GCSE PE to be more inclusive and to better meet the needs of all students. Therefore, what I mean when posing the question: ‘Should a qualification be inclusive?’ is, ‘do we want every student to choose GCSE PE?’ Perhaps a more important question to ask is: ‘Should GCSE PE right for every student?’

This qualification will not sway the uninterested or disengaged. Just as some students opt out of pursuing History, Music, Spanish or any other option subject, each qualification is not for everyone. The aim of GCSE PE is not to enable students to fall in love with physical activity. It is not to get students active. It is to build the knowledge to enable further study and/or employment. It is not right for everyone, nor should it be.

Is the Declining Uptake a Positive?

Is it possible that the decline in uptake of GCSE PE might be considered a positive?

The value of PE should not come from examination results or the desire to be considered academic. Meaningful Core PE alone is in a great position to elevate the value of our subject. The decline in GCSE PE numbers could ensure that schools focus on the majority. With fewer students choosing this examination option the focus can shift from sporting excellence to moderate competency.

We must understand that the aims of GCSE PE and Core PE are very different and using one to meet the aims of the other could be negatively affecting some students. This is not to say we should not strive to improve results or uptake, of course we should. It means we should consider less harmful methods of doing so that does not impact the core mission of PE to nurture physical literacy and lifelong engagement.


Meyer, L. (2011) The Value of GCSEs. Centre for Education Research Policy.

Association for PE. (August, 2022). More GCSE Students Choose Computing Over PE for the First Time

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